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Bishop Robert Finn’s Next Problem Is Himself

Bishop Robert Finn

It was over a week ago that Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph was found guilty of failing to report suspicions of child abuse by Father Shawn Ratigan. It was a misdemeanor conviction, handed down swiftly by Judge John Torrence after a short bench trial that featured no witnesses. Instead, the prosecution and defense submitted a 9 page stipulation of facts [pdf], from which each side argued their case. Finn lost, and was given a two year suspended sentence of probation with nine conditions, several of which amount to promising to follow the law in the future and telling his priests and others that they must follow the law.

I went to the diocesean website, to see how Finn and the diocese were reacting to the trial, verdict, and sentence. Let’s see . .  there’s a new high school opening, and the name was unveiled for the very first time a few days ago: St. Michael the Archangel High School. But as for the trial . . . nothing. No press release expressing relief that the trial is over, or thanking the attorneys, or expressing remorse, or anything at all related to the trial. Nothing.

But despite the loud sounds of crickets, there is plenty on the website that ought to make Finn very, very nervous — things he himself has written and said.

For example, there is a document on the website entitled “Code of Ethical Standards for Priests, Pastoral Administrators, Deacons and Diocesan Officers” [pdf], first drafted by Finn’s predecessor in 1998 and revised by Finn himself in 2006. Finn’s introductory preface is instructive:

In our service to God’s people we are called to represent Jesus Christ in His role as guardian and shepherd. It is an awesome responsibility which we would hardly dare to consider without the help of God’s grace.

This Code of Ethical Standards, produced some years ago by a representative task force and approved by Bishop Raymond Boland is a helpful and necessary guide to conduct becoming the representatives of Christ’s Church. It spells out in concrete terms the philosophy, principles, and specific requirements that must govern our participation in positions of leadership in the Church.

Each of us must study it and incorporate it fully into our work so that the dignity and value of every person may be affirmed and safeguarded, and that our own integrity and reputation, and that of the Catholic Church, may remain above any suspicion or scandal.

It is my hope that these guidelines will be helpful reminders to us all of the greatness of our vocation.

In Christ and Mary,
Most Reverend Robert W. Finn
Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Somehow, I can’t help but feel that Finn’s own “integrity and reputation” are not “above any suspicion or scandal,” but that’s just me.

Well, me and Judge Torrence.

Given Finn’s phrasing that these principles “must govern our participation in leadership,” it sure looks as if these are strong indeed. The Code begins with a set of “General Principles”, the first of which is Integrity: “Church leaders must be persons of integrity and conduct themselves in an honest and open manner, free from deception or corruption. They must handle the responsibilities of their office in a conscientious fashion. As leaders in a Church that sets high [m]oral standards for its members, they have a responsibility to lead by example.”


Again, note the use of “must”. There’s no room for any ecclesiastical mulligans.

The Code is filled with injunctions to report abuse, and Finn failed to do so. More than that, he stood in the way of those who considered doing so themselves. One of the more damning sections of the stipulation of facts at Finn’s trial was paragraph #63, which demonstrates how Finn’s subordinates viewed Finn’s view of someone who reports abuse to the police:

Murphy [the Vicar General of the diocese] stated that Finn was out of town when he reported to the police and was “upset” upon learning of his actions. “It seemed he was angry.” When asked if he was concerned that he might be angering his boss Murphy stated “Yes. I told my sister, I think I made a decision that will not make the Bishop happy.”

Finn stipulated that this is an accurate picture of Murphy’s views, and it can be read only one of two ways. Either Murphy didn’t understand his boss very well, or he knew that Finn viewed the Code as optional, despite its pious rhetoric and firm injunctions. Finn would presumably argue the former, but I’m going with the latter.

So what happens now?

The Code has a good section on Accountability, but sadly, accountability ends at the top. When *others* violate the Code, it is to be reported up the hierarchy; when the bishop is the one who — by his own admission in the stipulation and by the verdict of the court — fails to report abuse, the Code is sadly silent.

There’s another document on the diocesan website (also signed by Finn) that speaks of accountability, however. On December 11, 2001 — a full year after the diocesan lawyer was was given custody of Ratigan’s computer with disturbing images the stipulation described as “a little girl’s vaginal area with the panties being moved further aside” but before anything was reported to the police — Bishop Finn presented to the diocese a “Special Report on the Diocesan Response to the Sexual Abuse of Minors” that opened with personal remarks from Finn:

My Dear Friends in Christ,

In July 2002, the U.S. Bishops approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People — a living document that calls us to:
• promote healing and reconciliation with victims
and survivors of sexual abuse
• respond to any allegation of sexual abuse
• protect children by creating safe environments
• discipline offenders
• cooperate with civil authorities

I want to provide you with an overview of how the diocese fulfills the Charter. Included with this report is comprehensive information regarding safe environments, investigations and reports of clerical sexual abuse, and assistance for victims and survivors.

We have taken many important steps to prevent abuse from happening in diocesan, parish or school settings. And yet, I know that our work in this regard will never be “over.” Together — as bishop, clergy, religious, staff, volunteers, and families — we must continue to do all within our power to protect children.

In Christ and Mary,
Most Reverend Robert Finn
Bishop of Kansas City – St. Joseph

(Somehow, I don’t think hiding an incriminating laptop at your lawyer’s office qualifies as “all within our power,” but that’s just me. But I digress . . .)

Inside the report, it said this (p. 2):

What is the diocese doing to create safe environments for children?
Prevention measures are the best way to create safe environments for children. Through required community education and background screening of all clergy, employees and volunteers who interact with children, the diocese establishes a safety net around parish, school and diocesan programs. . .

What happens if a background investigation reveals a criminal record?
The appropriate parish, school or diocesan supervisor informs the individual of the screening results. The individual’s ability to participate in parish, school or diocesan programs is determined based on the nature of the criminal offense.

Based on the outcome of last week’s trial, it seems Finn ought to be removed from supervising priests, but that’s just me.

Well, me and the Most Reverend Robert Finn, Bishop of Kansas City — St. Joseph.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.